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Human Use of Caves

Bats and Caves


Karst and Nonkarst Watershed Models

Cave Creations

Bat Babies

Life in the Dark


Based on an article in
Science & Children Magazine,
Published by the National Science Teachers Association, October 2002

Cave Ecosystems

Bones and Baskets: Human Use of Caves

Human occupation of caves dates to some time within the Paleolithic period (2 million to 10,000 years ago) of the Stone Age, when early hominids first began to create and use stone tools. This period also saw the evolution of the human species into true modern humans, Homo sapiens. Caves were obvious natural shelters for early humans, offering effective protection from the elements. However, scientists theorize that before early humans would have been able to safely live in caves, they would have needed fire-making skills in order to drive out cave-dwelling predators and keep others at a distance outside. Chinese caves contain some of the earliest evidence of human use of fire, approximately 400,000 years ago, though scientists believe that the earliest use of fire may have occurred about 100,000 years before that.

Cowboy Caves in Utah show signs of human occupation dating back more than 6,000 years.
Cowboy Caves, located on the Colorado Plateau in Utah, are named for the cowboy graffiti and cattle brands scratched on the walls in relatively recent times. But they have provided archaeologists with a wealth of information about prehistoric life in the region as well. The caves show signs of human occupation beginning about 6,300 years ago, including fire pits, milling stones, grass matting, rock art, and unusual split-twig figurines.

As archaeological sites, caves have enormous scientific potential because they usually provide ideal conditions for preservation of normally perishable materials such as bones, textiles, baskets, and charcoal. Such materials can be dated using C-14 or K-Ar dating methods, which use radioactive isotope proportions to establish age. Some caves document a continuous or intermittent sequence of human occupation for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. Accurately dated cave materials can also help archaeologists to establish dates for non-cave archaeological sites and artifacts within the same region. In this sense, caves can be viewed as prehistoric "time capsules" for a given area. Unfortunately, commercially valuable cave artifacts are often looted by unethical collectors before archaeologists have an opportunity to study the finds.

Some of the earliest and most spectacular evidence of human artistic expression has been found in caves, most notably in Spain and France; cave wall paintings and engravings depict animals, geometric designs, and occasional human figures. One of the best known art caves in the world is Lascaux in France, though the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc is the oldest of these cave-art sites, dating back 31,000 years. Some coastal caves occupied by humans during the Ice Age are now flooded and difficult to locate because of the worldwide rise in sea level since that time. However, coastal caves are the ideal places in which to search for evidence of early maritime cultures. For example, archaeologists exploring France's Cosquer Cave, along the Mediterranean Sea and now 37 m below sea level, discovered rare depictions of marine mammals and birds, including seals, auks, and penguins. In Daisy Cave along California's Santa Barbara Channel, artifacts date human use of the area to around 11,600 years ago and provide the earliest evidence yet for utilization of watercraft in the Americas. Caves have also been used for religious and ceremonial purposes for thousands of years. Some of the earliest Buddhist temples and shrines are in Chinese caves that are still in use today. Feather Cave on BLM lands in New Mexico was used for ceremonial purposes and contains paintings of masks and other ceremonial artifacts.

Mask depiction and handprint are found in New Mexico's Feather Cave Complex. 
New Mexico's Feather Cave Complex contains a rich assemblage of 1,000-year-old artifacts, including the mask depiction and handprint (above). STEVE FLEMING, BLM
The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves near Qumran, Israel, along the western shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956, are considered by many to be the single most important archaeological find of the 20th century. They comprise about 800 documents of varying degrees of completeness. Some scholars have identified the authors as Essenes, members of a Jewish sect that existed at the time of Jesus. Among other things, the scrolls comprise the oldest copies of the Bible in existence, dating from 250 B.C. to about 135 A.D.—1,000 years earlier than any other known version.

Hidden Cave and Lovelock Cave, two archaeologically important caves on BLM lands in northwestern Nevada, are located along the edge of what once was the Pleistocene-period Lake Lahontan. In Lovelock Cave, 2,000-year-old duck decoys were discovered. And Hidden Cave is unique because it does not contain the household debris that is characteristic of other such archaic sites. This suggests that Hidden Cave was used by humans as a tool cache rather than a habitation.

Like many desert caves in the early 20th century, Hidden and Lovelock Caves both were mined for bat guano, an excellent fertilizer because of its high nitrate content that is also used as a source material for gunpowder. Much of the guano once mined from Carlsbad Caverns was sent by rail to southern California to be used on extensive citrus groves.

Lovelock Cave in western Nevada holds many artifacts.1924 photo of archaeologist L.L. Loud with cache of duck decoys found in Lovelock Cave
1,800-year-old duck decoys found in Lovelock Cave
From the outside, Lovelock Cave in western Nevada (left) may not look like much. But inside, over the course of several decades, archaeologists have excavated more than 10,000 artifacts. The cave was probably used by prehistoric humans for storage and for protection from the elements. Hunters no doubt also used the cave — located on the shore of a dried-up ancient lake bed —as evidenced by 1,800-year-old duck decoys found among the objects recovered. In 1924, archaeologist L.L. Loud was photographed (above) with a cache of decoys he removed from the cave.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Civil Defense System formulated a plan to temporarily house many thousands of citizens in Carlsbad Caverns in the event of a nuclear war. As recently as 1980, food rations and water supplies were still being stored in the cave system in support of this plan.

In the United States today, caves are used mainly by research scientists and by recreational cavers. In some other parts of the world, however, both natural and human-excavated caves are still used as homes and for other purposes. Along the Yellow River in north-central China, for example, cave dwellings have been hollowed into sandstone hillsides by humans 2,000 years and are currently home to 80 million people. In parts of France, natural limestone caves—with their ideal, constant temperature and humidity—are used to age wines and world-famous Roquefort cheese. Cave systems have also been used to great effect as military transportation and escape routes and as weapons caches.


Last updated: 11-13-2009